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Frank A. Bures: Female fertility and COVID vaccines

Frank A. Bures: Female fertility and COVID vaccines

From the COLLECTION: Recent Healthful Hints columns by Dr. Bures series
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A female health care worker recently turned down a vaccination opportunity because she said she had read some posts on (un)social media that the available mRNA ones might cause infertility. She said she and her husband have been “trying to get pregnant” for over a year, and she didn’t want to make things worse.

Her phrase made me chuckle, as always when I hear it, because everything in medical school taught us that the female gets pregnant. The guy only “fertilizes” the process, whether in person or from a sperm bank (less enjoyable). A lot in medicine has changed since then, but not the basic anatomy or process.

This prompted me to “look it up.” I found several computer references to the source of this misinformation; read lie. A WebMD article from Jan. 12 begins, “There is no evidence that the new vaccines against COVID-19 cause infertility, yet it’s a worry that’s been cited by some health care workers as a reason they’re reluctant to be first in line to get the shots.”

The derivation of this anti-vax misinformation seems to be from a letter sent Dec. 1, 2020, to the European Medical Agency (EMA) by Wolfgang Wodarg (not Mozart), a German doctor, and Michael Yeadon, a former Pfizer corporation researcher who had left Pfizer 9 years before.

The letter’s intent was to get the EMA to delay vaccine development because they were claiming that the vaccines stimulate an immune response and antibodies to the COVID-19 spike protein, which shares segments identical to a vital protein in placenta formation called syncitin-1. Their speculation, not proven, was that this similarity would cause the antibodies produced to be misdirected at the syncitin-1 protein and prevent pregnancy.

Posts immediately began appearing on social media (SM) claiming this could lead the body to attack the placenta. Politifact, an online fact checking service, on Dec. 10 cited a blog post posted Dec. 2 on a site called “Health and Money News” with the title, “Head of Pfizer research: COVID vaccine is female sterilization.” Another SM posy said, “The COVID vaccine has the potential to damage the ability of women to form a placenta-hence infertility — Best way to depopulate?” That’s a rather radical and radically unfounded statement.

But the original Wodarg/Yeadon petition said, “There is no indication whether antibodies against spike proteins of (coronaviruses) would also act like anti-syncitin-1 antibodies.”

The idea that the vaccine would do this is wrong for several reasons. Jill Foster, M.D., pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota said the spike protein and placental protein are about as similar as two different 10-digit phone numbers, each containing a 7. “With COVID, there was already a bunch of people out there saying there’s no such thing as COVID, and it’s no worse than the flu.” Many gained sizable followings on SM. When the vaccines came along, they used those sites to stir up new conspiracy theories.

They also invoked a fictional miniseries on Amazon Prime Video called “Utopia.” It premiered Sept. 25, 2020, but was written 7 years ago and was filmed before the pandemic. The plot involves a drug maker obsessed with population control who creates the illusion of a pandemic (not COVID) to convince people to get its vaccine, which didn’t prevent infection, but did prevent human reproduction. The current anti-vaxers extrapolated this to the COVID vaccines.

A good case against the hypothesis is the real world of infection. Paul Offit, M.D., director of the Vaccine Research Center at Children’s hospital of Philadelphia, says that if we realistically consider maybe 70 million people in the U.S. have been infected, the natural immune response would affect fertility. There is no evidence that the natural infection has done this. Dr. Offit, “If natural infection doesn’t alter fertility, why would a vaccine do it?”

No reference elucidated how Wodarg and Yeadon came to write this petition or why. Wodarg has a past that is medically rather sketchy and controversial regarding other vaccines and epidemics, such as the H5N1 in 2010. The current indirect attack follows that pattern.

It is hard to conceive the amount of emotion that builds up over trying to conceive unless you have been there. The health care worker’s worry is valid, but happily unfounded.

However, once a seed is planted, it is hard to uproot it, much like a good pregnancy. This harmful myth is equal to physician Andrew Wakefield’s pernicious lie that childhood vaccines cause autism.

My contention has long been that couples who think they really want children, no matter what, might consider renting a typical teenager for one to two months, and then decide if they truly want to pursue having a child! Raising teenagers is like nailing Jell-O to a tree. At least our wanna-be mom can hopefully conceive with no worry.

Governors and lieutenant governors from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Minnesota and Ohio are encouraging residents to make a plan for how they can get the coronavirus vaccine once they become eligible.

Dr. Bures, a semi-retired dermatologist, since 1978 has worked Winona, La Crosse, Viroqua, and Red Wing. He also plays clarinet in the Winona Municipal Band and a couple dixieland groups. And he does enjoys a good pun.


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